Why Texas COVID-19 testing lags, and what's being done about it

CDC will release coronavirus tests priorities
Posted at 5:48 PM, May 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 10:49:45-04

As the national and the Texas economy open up, some worry about that move also opening up the opportunity for coronavirus infections.

Economists said we can't afford another shutdown, so we also can't afford to make mistakes in testing.

A 25 News investigation found Texas lags far behind in national testing numbers, but experts in Central Texas say they're working hard to get us caught up. As the fight against coronavirus enters a new phase with the gradual re-opening of our economy, the availability of testing has become critical.

And right now, Texas has some work to do on that. James McCoy doesn't think Texas has done enough to fight COVID-19.

"Probably not, because it's brand new," said McCoy, an inspector for the Waco Housing Authority.

25 News was the first to openly question the governor about the coronavirus testing capability in Texas.

"Do we have enough Test kits in Texas?" we asked.

"It's a lot right now, and growing exponentially," answered Governor Greg Abbott in an exchange that took place early in the pandemic on March 13.

Exponentially maybe, but remember, Texas has a population of more than 29 million and the COVID-19 tracking project says - we've only tested a little over half a million as of Mother's Day.

That's a little less than 2 percent, putting Texas near the bottom of state testing rates.

"I would say.... we need to improve. We need to do more testing," explained Dr. Vaidehi Shah, Senior Epidemiologist with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

But within Texas, Epidemiologist Shah says McLennan County ranks with the state's biggest in testing.

"With Dallas County, with Tarrant County, we are coming in line with those counties," she said.

Health district figures show testing numbers increasing, while positive tests have actually dropped. It's one reason the health district has dropped many of its testing guidelines, and asking private doctors to do more.

"We all know that a month ago we did not adequate tests available. Now, we are promoting them to test anyone who has symptoms that are COVID-like," said Shah.

And getting that word out to a wider audience.

"Telling the general public to go to their physicians and get tested if they have any symptoms. This is again a shift in our strategy from a month ago when we did not have adequate tests available," she explained.

The health district has also begun pushing for more testing centers like this one to make tests more widely available.

Shah insists McLennan County has come a long way, given the limits put upon it.

"If you go back to March 17, we had done about 20 tests. And you compare that to Friday we did about 3-hundred tests," said Shah.

Still not enough, but she says we're getting there.

This is especially important as the Governor's re-opening of the economy relies on better testing and lower infection rates.

Meanwhile, the president says Washington will also help.

"Think of that 12.9 million tests today - I'm announcing that my administration will provide the collection supplies to help states meet their targets and meet them rapidly," said President Donald Trump on Monday.

James McCoy hopes so, because he doesn't want to see Texas at the bottom of any list for long, especially with jobs and livelihoods at stake.

"I'm sure that as time passes an they get a better understanding of how this virus operates, there will probably be an improvement in the method of testing and the numbers being tested," he said.

So, don't be surprised if you do see numbers go up in the weeks ahead.

Can we trust those numbers? Experts say, to a large degree, yes.

What happens next will depend on what we Texans do on our own to keep infection rates down.